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Give me back my Legions!
  • Текст добавлен: 9 октября 2016, 01:56

Текст книги "Give me back my Legions!"


Автор книги: Harry Norman Turtledove




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Текущая страница: 6 (всего у книги 21 страниц)

74

V

Caldus Caelius led a column of Romans through the German woods. People spoke of the woods as trackless, but they weren’t really. All kinds of narrow tracks ran through them. Deer had made some, aurochs others, men still others. Deciding which kind was which wasn’t always easy – not if you were a Roman.

Orders from Mindenum were to be careful, whatever that meant. Caelius knew what it would have meant in more open country: vanguard, rear guard, and flanking parties out to both sides to make sure nobody could sneak up on the main body of troops. Only one trouble: that kind of due diligence was impossible in this terrain.

Traveling along a path was pretty simple – as long as you marched in single file, or, on what was unquestionably a man-made track, perhaps two abreast. A vanguard too far ahead or a rear guard too far behind could be ambushed and slaughtered before the main force came to its rescue. In this thick forest, flank guards were simply impossible; they hadn’t a prayer of keeping up.

And so Caelius had a vanguard and rear guard of sorts, but not the sorts he would have wanted. Instead of flank guards, he had extra buccinatores.He had to hope blaring trumpets would make up for lack of protection. The hope wasn’t altogether forlorn: other Roman columns were pushing through these woods, too.

“One of these days, we’ll have proper roads here,” Caelius said. His sword was sheathed, but he could grab it in a hurry if he had to.

“Fat lot of good that does us now,” one of the legionaries said.

Several other men laughed. That meant Caelius couldn’t blister the mouthy soldier the way he wanted to. A clown could get away with all kinds of things. Instead of swearing, Caelius imagined a proper Roman road, broad and solid, well paved and well drained, the trees cut back on both sides to make way for it. That would be a demon of a lot better than this narrow, miserable, meandering track.

“If Rome needs money so bad, we’ve got to squeeze it out of places like this, we’re all in big trouble,” the wit went on. He’d got away with one joke, so he thought he could get away with two.

“Oh, put a plug in it, Lucius,” Caelius said. “These Germans are ours now, see? So they’ve got to get used to acting like they belong in the Empire. And thatmeans paying up when it’s time to pay. Simple, right. You’re pretty simple yourself, right?”

Lucius said nothing. When a superior got on you, nothing was the smartest thing you could say. Caldus Caelius wished again for a Roman highway. The legions could really move down roads like those. And, better yet, they could see what was moving against them.

A raven croaked, up in a tree. Did that mean the Romans had disturbed it, or had it seen some Germans sneaking through the woods? How could you know before you found out the hard way?

You couldn’t. When you boiled everything down, that was what you had left. Caelius made sure the sword was loose in its scabbard. If a big enough mob of barbarians jumped his troop, he and all the men he led would die. He knew that. But they’d take a bunch of Germans with them. The natives knew that.It had to be about the only thing that kept them from rising up.

Somebody – notLucius, Caelius was glad to note – asked, “Where’s this lousy village we’re heading for?”

“Not far now,” Caelius said. I hope it’s not far now. If it’s where people say it is and we are where I think we are, it shouldn’t be far.In Germany, you couldn’t take either of those for granted. You couldn’t take anything for granted, not if you wanted to go on breathing. Caldus Caelius was in favor of breathing. He aimed to go on doing it for a long time.

Less than a quarter of an hour later, the track came out into a clearing. Behind Caelius, the legionaries muttered in glad surprise. The sunshine was cool and watery, nothing like the savage sun of southern Italy that had baked Caelius when he was a naked little boy. Even so, he had to blink several times against the unexpected glare.

Pigs with a tall ridge of hair on their backs ran for the woods. Pigs weren’t so dumb: they knew trouble when they smelled it. A couple of small, rough-coated ponies and several shaggy cows and scrawny sheep grazed on the meadow. Men and women worked in the fields with scythes and sickles – harvest time was here. They planted in the spring and reaped in the fall. That seemed unnatural to Caelius, who’d grown up in a country where summer rain was a prodigy.

One by one, the Germans stopped working. They stared at the Roman soldiers. “Deploy,” Caelius said quietly. Maybe he could forestall trouble by showing he was ready for it.

He had orders – which he didn’t much like – not to antagonize the natives. But he was here in the field, and Varus’ Greek slave, who’d relayed those orders, bloody well wasn’t. Caelius figured he could interpret them as he thought best. If the Germans decided he’d kill them for getting uppity, they’d stay quiet. As far as he was concerned, that was the same as not antagonizing them.

He did advance toward the people working in the fields without a weapon in his right hand. That made him feel naked, but not nearly so naked as he would have felt without a bunch of legionaries at his back.

“Hail!” he called in what came fairly close to being the language the Germans used. He knew a handful of other words, but he’d picked them up from joy girls. These large, somber men wouldn’t want to hear them. He went on in his own tongue: “Do any of you speak Latin?”

“I do,” said a mustachioed barbarian not far from his own age. “Don’t good speak, but speak. You what want?”

“Taxes,” Caldus Caelius answered.

“What is – are -taxes?” the German asked. He overtopped Caelius by half a head. A great big sword hung from his left hip. Why would you wear a sword to work in the fields? Because some other savages were liable to jump you– -that was the only answer the Roman saw.

And this fellow didn’t know whattaxes were? Well, he’d find out. Oh, sure! Wouldn’t he just? “You’re a Roman subject now,” Caelius explained. He sounded sympathetic – he couldn’t help it. What were taxes? Oh, my! Shaking his head, he went on, “You have to pay to keep things going.”

“Pay?” Another word that meant little or nothing to the natives. The Germans mostly didn’t deal in silver and gold, or even in copper. They made no coins of their own, and were just learning to use the ones from Roman mints. They traded sheep for barley, or beer tor boards, or honey for blankets.

This year, Quinctilius Varus had said the legions could collect taxes in kind. Next year, the Germans would have to start forking over silver like everybody else. One thing: that would make payments a demon of a lot easier to carry away.

Caldus Caelius stopped woolgathering – although he’d be doing just that, literally, soon enough. “Pay,” he repeated. “You give me some of what you have, and the Empire lives on it.”

One of the other men, an older fellow, asked the one who spoke Latin something. The younger man with the mustaches answered in the Germans’ incomprehensible, guttural language. The older fellow growled like a mean hound. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword.

“Tell your kinsman that isn’t a good idea,” Caelius advised. He turned and waved at the hard-faced Roman soldiers behind him. “We don’t want any trouble, but we’re ready for it.”

The mustachioed man spoke again. The graybeard’s hand fell away from the sword. Hate still smoldered in his pale eyes. The younger man, the one who spoke Latin, didn’t exactly look thrilled, either. “You say we taxes pay. You mean you us rob.”

“No,” Caelius said. Yes,he thought. “Robbers take whatever they want. We take only a little, only so much from each steading. The law tells us how much we are supposed to get.”

“Law? This is not law. This is robbery,” the German said. “Could you from my village take without soldiers behind you? No. Of course not. Robbing.”

“In the Empire, the tax collector comes without soldiers behind him,” Caelius said. “People give him what they owe, and he goes away.” Sometimes. Some places. When the harvest was good two or three years in a row. But it could happen.

“Then your men are without penises born,” the German said. It was a funny-sounding insult, but Caelius had no trouble understanding what it meant. The barbarian went on, “And what do your penisless men get for these taxes your robbers from them steal?”

“Roads. Baths. Courts. Soldiers who keep the peace so they don’t have to worry about getting robbed and murdered. Things they can’t do for themselves – things you people here don’t have yet.”

“But they lose their freedom.” That was not a question.

Caldus Caelius shrugged. “Who cares if you’re free if you’re stuck in the middle of the woods and nobody ten miles away even knows you’re there? The Empire reaches from Gaul to Syria. You could go trading to any of those places. You could be a soldier and serve anywhere. Augustus has German bodyguards even now.”

“Dogs,” the German said, and spat on the ground. “I am no dog. I am wolf.”

“Look, friend, I don’t care if you’re a dog or a wolf or a purple hedgehog. You’ve got to pay any which way,” Caldus Caelius said. “That’s what my orders are, and that’s what’s going to happen.”

“And if I want to fight instead?” the German asked.

Caelius glanced behind him. The native’s gaze followed his. The legionaries looked tough and ready for anything. Caelius’ mailshirt jingled on his shoulders as he shrugged. “Well, you can do that. You won’t like what comes of it, but you can.”

The German weighed the odds. Unless Caelius missed his guess, the fellow was also weighing his pride. Was getting his whole clan slaughtered worth it to him? He spoke in harsh gutturals to his countrymen. They went back and forth in that grunting, coughing language.

At last, the German asked, “How much you make us pay?”

Now they were at the stage of doing business. Caelius tried to hide his relief; he didn’t want the barbarian to think he was gloating – even if he was. Sounding as matter-of-fact as he could, he answered, “For a village of this size, two cows or eight sheep – or eight denarii, if you’ve got em.

“No denarii,” the German said, as if the idea was ridiculous. In his mind, it probably was. He went on, “We give you, you take, you away go, you us alone leave?”

“That’s the idea,” Caldus Caelius agreed. He didn’t say the Romans would be back to collect the tax next year, too, and the year after that, and the year after that.One thing at a time. And, with any luck at all, hewouldn’t be the one who came back to this village.

More back-and-forth in the Germans’ language. The barbarians didn’t like it. Well, who in his right mind did like paying taxes? You did it, and you thanked your gods you didn’t have to cough up more.

“We give you eight sheep, then,” said the man with the mustache. “You take them and you go. What is your name?”

“I’m Caldus Caelius,” Caelius answered. “What’s yours, friend, and why do you want to know?”

“Caldus Caelius.” The German said it two or three times, tasting it, fixing it in his memory. “Well, Caldus Caelius, I myself call Ingaevonus. Maybe we meet again, the two of us. We see who then remembers.”

“Anywhere you please, Ingaevonus.” Caelius knew he made a mess of the big man’s name, but he didn’t care. “Any time you please. With your friends or without them. With mine or without them, too.”

Ingaevonus looked at him in surprise. “It could be, after your own fashion, you have the makings of a man.” Before Caelius could even get mad at him for doubting it, the German turned away and started yelling in his own language. A couple of pimple-faced brats yelled back at him. He shouted them down. Caelius didn’t know what he said, but it sounded like a storm roaring through bare-branched winter trees.

The older fellow behind Ingaevonus put in his copper’s worth, too. The young punks stopped arguing. They trotted off, rounded up the sheep, and brought them back to Caldus Caelius. “Here. You take,” one of them said in fragmentary Latin.

“Thanks,” Caelius answered dryly. The kid, by the look on his face, wanted the Roman’s liver the way the vulture wanted Prometheus’. He probably hated all Romans on general principles.

Hate them or not, though, he’d picked up some of their language. Just about all the Gauls spoke some Latin these days, even if they still used their own tongue when they talked among themselves. Old-timers in the legions said a lot fewer people on the west side of the Rhine had known Latin when they were first stationed there. It would probably work the same way in Germany over the next thirty years.

That wasn’t Caldus Caelius’ worry. “You have paid the tax for this village, Ingaevonus,” he said in loud, formal tones. To his own men, he added, “Now we take the tax back to Mindenum.”

They would look like a pack of fools doing it, too: all these legionaries escorting eight skinny sheep. But overwhelming force had its advantages. The Germans weren’t going to try to take back their miserable beasts.

“You know what’d be funny?” a soldier said as they headed off toward their camp.

“What’s that, Septimus?” Caelius asked.

“If another bunch of our guys hit that village by mistake and try to squeeze eight more sheep out of those natives. You think that big fellow with the fur on his lip wouldn’t go up like Mount Etna?”

Caldus Caelius thought about it. Then he chuckled. “Crucify me if he wouldn’t.”

Laughing and joking, the Romans trudged back to Mindenum.

Arminius scowled in black fury as Roman soldiers led a horse and two sheep away from his father’s steading. Sigimerus and the other men there were also angry, but there were too many legionaries to fight. Trying would have meant throwing German lives on the dungheap.

“This is why the Pannonians rose up against Rome, Father,” Arminius said, even before the last legionary went off into the woods.

“Yes, I understand that,” Sigimerus said. “I always understood it here.” He tapped the side of his head with his left forefinger, then added, “Now I understand it here, too.” He cupped his testicles with his right hand.

“Well, then?” Arminius exclaimed. The looks on the faces of the other men at the steading were bad enough. The expressions his mother and Thusnelda and the other women wore seemed ten times worse. Their scorn burned like the mix of oil and brimstone and pitch Roman armies used to fire forts that held out against them. If men couldn’t protect their chattels, could thev protect their women? If they couldn’t protect their women, did they really have any balls?

But his father asked, “And how are the Pannonians doing in this war of theirs?”

Automatically, Arminius answered with the truth: “They’re losing. It will all be over in a year or two.”

“And you think we would do better because . . . ?” Sigimerus let the question hang in the air. By the way he asked it, he didn’t think his son had any good reply.

“Because the Romans had plenty of time to rope down the land before the people who live there rebelled,” Arminius said. “There were already Roman towns in Pannonia, towns full of retired Roman soldiers and their families. Roman traders were everywhere, too. The colonists helped the legions, and the traders heard about the rebels’ moves even before they made them. If we give Rome the same chance, she’ll rope us down the same way. Then we’ll lose when we do try to fight.”

He watched Sigimerus gnaw on his lower lip. His father’s unhappy gaze traveled to the women again, and grew more unhappy still. “If we rise and we lose, we’re worse off than if we hadn’t risen at all. It will spoil our strength for years – maybe forever.”

“If we don’t rise, we become the Romans’ slaves,” Arminius said. “By the gods, if we don’t rise we deserveto become the Romans’ slaves! We deserve to pay taxes every year.”

That made Sigimerus flinch. Arminius had thought it would. “Taxes!” his father spat, using the Latin word as Arminius had. “This is nothing but a fancy Roman name for stealing. They haven’t had the nerve to try collecting them before. And what did that fellow mean when he said they wouldn’t take animals next year? Was he talking about barley, or did he mean they would grab a slave – or maybe one of our own folk?”

“Neither one, I think,” Arminius said. “He meant we would have to pay in denarii – in silver.”

“That’s even worse!” Sigimerus said. He was a chief – he had silver, and even gold. But the Germans got their coins in trade from the Romans. And now the legionaries would expect people to give them back?

“You see what I mean, then,” Arminius said.

“But you’ve fought for them. Flavus is still fighting for them.” Sigimerus’ mouth twisted – all of a sudden, he didn’t like reminding himself of that at all.

Arminius grimaced, too. “My brother is like Segestes – the Romans have seduced them both.” He was careful to keep his voice down so Thusnelda wouldn’t hear him. He didn’t run down her father when she was in earshot: he saw no point in stirring up trouble when he didn’t have to. But when he did . . .

“I wasn’t finished,” Sigimerus said. “You and your brother have fought for them. I’ve fought against them. Call them as many names as you please, but they make deadly foes. If we rise – even now, before the land is roped down, as you say – we are too likely to lose. And to lose would be our great misfortune.”

That only made Arminius grimace again. He’d seen the legions in action in Germany and in Pannonia. He knew from the inside out how formidable they were. Well-equipped and orderly to a degree no high-hearted German would have tolerated for a moment, the Romans had plenty of practice holding down folk who didn’t want to be held. Pannonia was giving them even more, as if thev needed it.

“We have to take them on when they aren’t at their best,” he said, thinking aloud.

“How?” his father asked bluntly.

It was an important question, however much the younger man wished it weren’t. It was, in fact, theimportant question. “I don’t know yet,” Arminius admitted.

“Well, you’d better walk small till you figure it out – if you ever do,” Sigimerus said. “Otherwise, the Romans will make you sorry. Not just you, either. They’ll make all the Cherusci – all the Germans – sorry.”

Arminius tried to imagine a catastrophe that would affect all the German tribes, from the Chamavi and Tencteri pressed hard against the Rhine to his own Cherusci in the German heartland to the Marcomanni under King Maroboduus north of the Danube (Maroboduus quietly encouraged the Pannonian rebels, but only quietly – he didn’t want Roman legions marching after him next) to the Gotones far away in the east. The Gotones had kings, too, but they were so far away that Arminius didn’t know the names of any of them. What kind of catastrophe would be big enough to make all those tribes feel it?

The question suggested its own answer. A Roman province stretching from the Rhine east to the Elbe would bring most of the German tribes under Augustus’ rule – would enslave them, in other words. The Gotones would still lie beyond Rome’s reach, but they would need to change their way of doing things, too. And if – no, when – the eagles decided to lunge forward again . . .

“I have to find a way, Father. We all have to,” Arminius said. “If we don’t, they’ll own us. Have you seen that camp of theirs, that Mindenum?”

“I’ve heard about it,” Sigimerus said.

“That’s not enough,” Arminius said. “I saw plenty of legionary camps in Pannonia. I lived in one, fought in one, while I learned what they did and how they did it. But Mindenum, by all the gods, Mindenum is the biggest one I ever set eyes on. None of the ones in Pannonia comes close. And in Pannonia, at least the Romans can say they already rule the place. We’re still free – or we think we are. Mindenum says something different.”

“If we rise and we lose, that would be worse than not rising at all, bec – ” Sigimerus said.

“Yes, you told me that before,” Arminius interrupted impatiently.

His father went on as if he hadn’t spoken: “Because it would geld us at the same time as it gave them the excuse to tighten the shackles on our fatherland. We can’t afford that. I think we’re lucky to have held out against them as long as we have.”

“I promise, Father: when I set us in motion against them, we won’t fail,” Arminius said. “Or if we do, I won’t live to see it.”

“I gladly accept the first part of that oath. May the second part not come to pass,” Sigimerus said.

“Yes. May it not. But we must fight the Romans. Even the Gauls fought the Romans, though they lost.” Like most Germans, Arminius looked down his straight nose at the folk who lived in Gaul. Gallic tribes had settled a good part of Germany, till Germans drove them out of it. Germans would have occupied the west bank of the Rhine, had the Romans – not the natives – not driven them back. Against the Roman legions, honors were about even so far. That thought brought Arminius back to his main idea, “The Gauls fought well enough to keep their honor. If we roll over to show our bellies like whipped dogs, we will have none – and deserve none.”

“Dead men may have honor, but they cannot eat of it,” Sigimerus said.

“True enough. But those who come after them will remember them for aye. Their names will live in song – and deserve to,” Arminius said. “Better that than to live a long life and be forgotten like any other slaves – and deserve to be.”

His father sighed. “I cannot persuade you to set this aside?”

“I was not the only one who felt his manhood threatened when the Romans robbed us here. They have more ways to make men eunuchs than just by cutting.” As Sigimerus had before him, Arminius cupped his right hand over his genitals.

Sigimerus sighed again. “If you will not set this aside, I had better give you all the help I can. By the gods, son, you’ll need it, and more besides. I only hope you find everything you need, that’s all.”

A smile like the sun coming out from behind storm clouds lit Arminius’ face. “If we struggle together, how can we lose?”

“There are ways,” Sigimerus replied. “There are always ways.”

Quinctilius Varus looked at the accounts his secretaries had compiled. He knew how much the Roman provincial administration took from Syria every year. Germany had yielded barely a twentieth part of that. Yes, this land was poor. How could it be anything else when it had scant gold or silver of its own and when neither the olive nor the vine wanted to grow here? Even if the natives weren’t so barbarous, those would have been important entries in the ledger’s debit columns.

Varus understood as much, anyhow. Varus had seen Germany with his own eves. Now that he and the legions were abandoning Mindenum for the winter, he could put seeing Germany with his own eyes in the same place all his other memories went. Yes, he’d come back next spring. He didn’t have to dwell on that just yet, though. He didn’t have to, and he didn’t intend to.

Augustus hadn’t seen Germany with hisown eyes, though. Augustus, fortunate soul, had never crossed the Rhine. What would the ruler of the Roman Empire think when he saw the paltry sum Varus had extracted from this province? How angry would he be?

Were Varus but a little bolder, a little nervier, he would have cooked the books before his wife’s great-uncle ever set eves on them. But he didn’t have the guts – didn’t have the balls – to risk it. His greatest fear (one that, by the nature of things, he had to keep to himself) was that Augustus had a spy, or more than one, secreted somewhere within his own retinue. If he gave Augustus one set of figures himself, while the spy delivered a different and significantly worse set . . .

The mere idea made Quinctilius Varus shudder. All sorts of nasty little desert islands scattered through the Mediterranean. Varus didn’t want to spend the rest of his days on one. And he might, if he got caught telling that big a lie.

Being married to Claudia Pulchra wouldn’t pull his chestnuts out of the fire, not if Augustus got angry enough. Augustus’ grand-niece’s husband? So what? Augustus’ own daughter had spent five years on the island of Pandataria, forbidden wine and all male company not specifically approved by her father, before winning a slightly milder exile in Rhegium, on the toe of the Italian boot.

Of course, Julia was guilty of gross immorality, where Varus would only have embezzled. After being used like a game piece in Augustus’ dynastic plans – none of which worked out the way he wanted – Julia hadn’t cared what she did, as long as it scandalized her father. Varus, for better or worse, was far less flamboyant.

He sighed. “Are you all right, sir?” Aristocles asked.

Letting the pedisequushear what was on his mind wouldn’t do. “I suppose so,” he said. “Gods know I’ll be glad to get away from Mindenum. Who that wasn’t crazy wouldn’t be?”

“You’re right about that!” Usually, Varus had to wonder whether a slave was sincere. Not this time. Aristocles couldn’t stand Germany or the Germans, and didn’t bother trying to hide how he felt.

“Vetera’s not exactly a triple six, either,” Varus said. Rome would have been the best throw at dice. So would Athens or Alexandria. Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria, came pretty close. Vetera . . . didn’t.

“Better than Mindenum.” Aristocles’ wave encompassed what was left of the legionary encampment. Troops didn’t overwinter here, not yet. When they left for land more firmly in Roman hands, they made sure they either took along or destroyed everything the locals could use. They took all the iron in the camp – everything from surgeons’ scalpels to horse trappings to hobnails to spoons. Anything left behind, German smiths would pound into spearheads or knives or swords. The soldiers burned all the timber in the camp. They would cut more next spring. When they were on the march, they built a fresh encampment every day. They didn’t mind wrecking this semi-permanent place.

“One of these days, this will be a Roman city in its own right,” Varus said. “Plenty of towns in Africa and Spain and Gaul started out as legionary camps. They’re respectable enough now.”

“I suppose so.” His pedisequusdidn’t sound convinced. “Those weren’t stuck out in the middle of nowhere, though.”

Instead of arguing, Quinctilius Varus hid a smile. Aristocles was determined to despise Mindenum no matter what. Back when the Empire was younger and smaller, plenty of towns that now seemed comfortable and near the center of things would have been frontier posts fit only for soldiers.

Vala Numonius came up and saluted Varus. “We’re ready to head back to the Rhine, sir,” the cavalry commander said. “I won’t be sorry to see the last of this place for a while, and that’s the truth.”

Varus glanced over at Aristocles. The slave radiated agreement the way a red-hot piece of iron on an anvil radiated heat. Varus pretended not to notice. But he couldn’t help saying, “Well, neither will I.”

Before long, the legionaries would slog through the mud and the muck to the headwaters of the Lupia. After that, the going would get easier. Boats would take many of them down the river to the Rhine. Roman forts on the banks would make sure the Germans could only watch. The arrangement worked well enough, but it didn’t strike Varus as suitably triumphant.

“We ought to march through Germany,” he said. “We ought to show the natives we can go where we want whenever we care to.”

“Yes, sir,” Aristocles said resignedly.

“What’s the matter? You don’t like the idea?” Quinctilius Varus was sensitive to his slave’s shifts of inflection.

“Sir, I am delighted to march out ofGermany,” the pedisequusreplied. “As for marching throughGermany . . . There’s nowhere in this miserable country I care to go to. As far as I’m concerned, the barbarians are welcome to every last inch of it.”

Since Varus held a similar opinion, he couldn’t exactly tell Aristocles he was wrong. “One of these days, this will make a fine province,” he said, hoping he sounded as if he meant it. “We just have to finish bringing it into the Empire, that’s all.”

Aristocles took an incautious step back and squelched in mud that tried to suck the sandal off his foot. Clothes that would have been perfect anywhere around the Mediterranean proved less than ideal here. Tunics and togas were drafty; no wonder the Germans wore trousers under their swaddling cloaks – the ones who could afford to wear anything under those cloaks, anyhow. And boots stayed on and protected the feet better than sandals.

Muttering in disgust, Aristocles cleaned his sandal and his foot as best he could with a tuft of grass he pulled up from the ground. “It would serve the Germans right if we left them to their own barbarous devices,” he said. “They don’t deserve to be part of the Empire.”

Again, Varus felt the same way. His opinion, however, wasn’t what mattered here. “Augustus wants this province. He has his reasons. And what Augustus wants, Augustus gets.” That had been true for almost as long as Varus was alive, and Varus, as he knew too well, was no longer young. It might as well have been a law of nature.

“Augustus has never seen this country. He’s never seen these barbarians.” Aristocles pulled up more grass. He swiped it across a muddy spot he’d missed before. “By the gods, sir, if he had seen them he wouldn’t want them.”

Quinctilius Varus laughed. He imagined Augustus surveying the outpost at Mindenum. It wasn’t that Augustus had never taken the field – he’d beaten Rome’s finest marshals during the civil war after Julius Caesar’s murder. But Augustus was, without a doubt, a creature of the Mediterranean. Imagining him here in these gloomy woods was like imagining a fish in the Egyptian desert. The picture didn’t want to form.

Well, I am a creature of the Mediterranean, too,Varus thought, and I still wish Augustus had sent me to Egypt, or to Greece, or anywhere but here. I don’t belong here, and I never will.

“Vetera,” he said aloud. When he’d first set eyes on the military town on the left bank of the Rhine, he’d thought it the most gods-forsaken place in the world. Then he’d crossed over into Germany and found out how little he knew about places the gods had forsaken – if, indeed, they’d ever come here at all. Next to Mindenum, Vetera seemed like Antioch. Next to Germany, even the frontier of Gaul seemed like civilization.


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